25 May 2009
I hate to post on top of George's trenchant criticism of Arab-focused social media projects, but he tells me I should, so here goes:
I'm not in Copenhagen anymore but am continuing to think through the results of my work there and would like to share another piece of it with you. If you haven't read my first post, check it out here.
As I mentioned before, my day job is working on a journal that publishes analysis of the Arabic blogosphere written by a mix of journalists and academics. Here's how this type of research is normally done (This will seem pretty obvious to some, but bear with me):
Step 1: Pick a topic. Identify a frame based around some political event, type of blogger, or both. For example: What are Islamist bloggers in Kuwait writing about the recent elections? How are Egyptian bloggers reacting to the detention of activist X? How are pro March 14 bloggers in Lebanon framing the investigation into Hariri's murder?
Step 2: Find some blogs, read them, and talk with people about them. If you're lucky you will have a few articles on a similar topic to start with. You can begin by checking the blogs mentioned therein (if they're still around) and work your way out from there. If not, you can't go wrong with some Google searches or rooting around on Makboob.com or one of the other Arabic blog portals. In an ideal world you would have time to read at leisure, going through the archives and getting a comparative look at other related content. The "talking to people" stage is crucial but often, sadly, omitted.
Step 3: Connect the dots. Come up with some observations that tie together what you've observed with your larger question and add some analysis, preferably using buzzwords from your academic discipline. If you are a political scientist, you might discuss network theory or Habermas' "public sphere." The more anthropologically minded could look at the cultural norms being contested in cyberspace or how new in-groups form online. Bonus points for including the term "neo-liberal."
Step 4: Proofread, publish, link on your own blog. Repeat.
This system works well but it could be much better. Here are a few of its pitfalls as I see them:
Blogs come and go frequently, just like research projects on them. This tends to magnify the analytical weight given to consistent, all-star bloggers like the Abdel Moneim Mahmoud who can always be relied upon for strongly argued takes on issues of the day. This tendency for a handful of bloggers to be constantly on the radar screen of blog watchers should be apparent to anyone who has attended more than a few of the blogger get togethers that are all the rage these days.
People writing on web trends have an incentive to play up the political and social importance of their subject. This is encouraged by the dearth of good statistics on blogosphere size - both the total number of bloggers writing in Arabic, and the sizes of the individual national blogospheres. Maybe I am wrong about this and am in fact underestimating the popularity of writing and reading blogs. We don't have good data, so we just don't know. The data that exist are rough numerical estimates made at a specific point in time. These guesses tell us little about social and political dynamics.
Manual attempts to map blogger "attention" i.e. the links given to other bloggers and other content around the net are extremely time consuming, and thus rarely complete or analytically useful.
What do all of these problems have in common? Tune in next week...